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More, Bigger, Faster: The Pornographers of Consumption

Music suggestion: All This and More, The Dead Boys Drink suggestion: Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne

Fair warning: my grandfather was an Irish preacher and has been clearly channeled in this postcard. If you don’t want a sermon, skip it.

I am posting a short card this week, as I am on the road and spending time with family in San Francisco. It is eye opening to visit the US after months away. Stepping off a plane, the striking impression is one of dimension. We live at 4/3 scale. Large people driving big cars to huge homes. We shop in warehouses, drink in gallons (the 20 oz. Big Gulp has graduated to the 44 oz. Super Gulp, the 64 oz. Double Gulp, and now the truly staggering 128 oz. Team Gulp), and drive in urban tanks that evoke testosterone-driven power and adventure (Ram, Hummer, Excursion). For foreigners who shop at local farmers markets, sip 1 oz. espressos, and squeeze into tin cans with names reflecting small size and economy (Ecomotive, Smart, Mini) it can be overwhelming. To truly appreciate the heft of our culture, spend a few months elsewhere, anywhere.

I am no social anthropologist, but the desire to define ourselves through the things we acquire seems almost universal. We don’t have a monopoly on materialism in America, we just work harder at it, are prouder of it. In fact, we are the world’s pornographers of consumption, in my opinion, shameless of our accumulation of toys and accessories whose true redeemable value is self-aggrandizement. The grand monuments we build to ourselves, and curious we cram into them, validate the little lies we repeat about our self-importance.

I struggle to exorcise this fetish myself and am a hypocrite to preach otherwise. All things equal, I prefer bigger to smaller, more to less, faster to slower. I lived in a comfortable 2,000 sq. ft. home in San Francisco. Yet, every time I walked through the neighboring upscale community of St. Francis Woods, I imagined the beautiful life in one of those Mediterranean style mansions. I still miss my Mercedes sedan, and now carless look enviously at the new models gliding past. Our modest apartment in France has a compact fridge that holds perhaps a 2 days’ supply of groceries, a small clothes washer tucked under the kitchen counter, and no room for a dryer or dishwasher. Do I do miss my American comforts? Absolutely, but I also appreciate that the low-maintenance, nimble lifestyle for which I’ve traded these accumulations away is permitting a far richer experience. We do become slaves to our possessions, which limits our options and bounds the possibilities for what comes next.

What about American exceptionalism? Are we still capable of great things? Could it extend to fresh thinking about global responsibility and how one flourishes in a new sustainable manner? In an era of rising temperatures, falling fish stocks, dwindling water resources, and the spread of the McWestern diet (and corresponding diabetes and heart disease, fat bottoms and big bellies), is it possible that we could once again lead by example? Churchill observed, “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” What do you think?

Bill Magill Aix-en-Provence

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